Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year!

The words "Auld Lang Syne" translates from old Scottish dialect meaning "Old Long Ago" and is about love and friendship in times past. The lyrics in the song referring to "We'll take a Cup of Kindness yet" relate to a drink shared by men and women to symbolize friendship. Happy New Year!

Auld Lang Syne

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

Chorus.-For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We'll take a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

Tonight's Hotel Reservation: Say What?

Kathy was reviewing our Hilton reservations online this morning just to make sure we'd re-qualified for Diamond Elite status in 2012. Much to our surprise, a reservation popped up for tonight, December 31, 2011 at our go-to SEA hotel, the Doubletree. What we'd been trying to do was book a night January 31, 2012. Oops! Even though it was a non-cancellable rate, a quick phone call to the hotel resulted in their graciously moving tonight's reservation to the right night. Sometime that will happen, but this time we managed to stave off paying for a night we're not using. We also checked with United this morning after noticing that a schedule change resulted in our being moved to different flights LHR-IAD in May. That was nobody's fault, since we were on different PNRs and the computer wouldn't notice. When the schedule changes occurred we didn't notice in the confirming e-mails that we'd been moved to separate flights. A quick call to the UA 1K line resulted in our being placed back together on the same flight out of London. Happy New Year!

Friday, December 30, 2011

"Complicated" Countries To Visit

An article in Budget Travel claims to reveal the 8 Most Complicated Countries to Visit. What the writer is actually describing are countries for which one has to apply for a visa in advance, a process that may be expensive or time-consuming or both. We've already visited (or are planning to visit) four of the eight: India, Russia, China, and Brazil. It's doubtful we'll visit the other four but more adventurous folks might want to. Read the list and decide for yourself. Finally, there was one obvious and glaring omission from the list. Can you guess? It all depends on your perspective.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Paperless Aussie Airports For Qantas Elites

Qantas Airlines has implemented RFID technology in Australia that practically eliminates paper for its elite flyers - or for anybody else willing to buy a "Q Bag Tag" for about $50.

We're already fans of Australia's airports, from check-in to bag drop to security to boarding. What a great idea this appears to be.

You can read all about this innovation in Scott McCartney's Wall Street Journal Middle Seat.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Those TSA Body Scanners: Unanswered Questions

We shared our our personal concerns about the TSA X-Ray scanners a year ago. Many others have similar concerns, and experts continue to speak out.

For example, a Christmas-Day article in Florida's South-Sentinal newspaper starts off like this:

Airport body scanners like those used in Fort Lauderdale and Orlando may pose a significant cancer threat, particularly to those over age 65 and women genetically at risk of breast cancer, some medical experts warn.

Because the scanners' lose dose of radiation penetrates just below skin level, it could imperil the lens of the eye, the thyroid and a woman's breasts, said Dr. Edward Dauer, head of radiology at Florida Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale.

Remember that you can choose to "opt out" of these scanners at the TSA check point in favor of a somewhat invasive body search. That choice, of course, is a good example of a classic dilemma or Morton's Fork.

You can read the entire article here.

Any Travel Plans For 2012? Who, Us?

Since we've already made notes of our 2011 travel stats here, maybe it's time to look ahead to 2012 and the trips we've planned so far.

January: Our first trip to India (Delhi, Golden Triangle, Goa)

March: Slovakia and Hungary (three nights at the opera)

April: Amtrak (Seattle-Sacramento-Chicago-New Orleans)

May: Australia (FlyerTalk Oz Fest in Canberra)

June: Transatlantic cruise (Oceania's Regatta)

It's a start.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

From Our Home To Yours

Merry Christmas!

Now if we could only keep G.E.'s crummy Made-in-China low-energy lights lit. The connecting plugs are already worn out and require repeated trips up and down the stepladder to wiggle. In fact, they went out again 30 seconds after we took the photo. Now they're back on. Ah well, at least we have a picture to admire.

To Travel Back To Montréal In 1978 To Listen

To Luciano Pavarotti at Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal singing Adeste Fidelis.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Germs On A Plane

We're fans of Scott McCartney who writes the Wall Street Journal's popular Middle Seat column, as well as blogging at The Middle Seat Terminal.

His topic this week is germs and planes. Since Kathy is just starting to feel a wee bit more human after weeks and weeks of coughing, she's especially interested in this one. Luckily we haven't flown in awhile and won't be until early January.

You'll find "Where Germs Lurk on Planes" here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hilton Metrotown Burnaby / Vancouver

After a pleasant voyage across the Strait of Georgia on BC Ferries, we drove to the Hilton Metrotown.

We were lured by a bargain rate that's allowing to scrape under the wire with the final stay needed to re-qualify for Hilton Diamond in 2012. So far we're very pleased with the property.

In our experience, Hilton doesn't upgrade even Diamonds routinely, so we can't help but be impressed by our upgrade to a two-room suite on the 15th floor.

The view out our window this rather lovely December day does reveal there really exists a "beautiful downtown Burnaby," that punch line favored by snide Vancouverites.

We'll check out the Executive Lounge later.

Morning update:

It's a beautiful morning as we gaze out toward Grouse Mountain and the other North Shore Mountains within view.

The lounge met our needs perfectly last night, with a choice of three hot appetizers and a variety of cold items. Kathy is still fighting the same bug and this provided a convenient and pleasant alternative to going out.

This morning the continental breakfast included waffles and scrambled eggs, along with fruits, yogurts, a variety of muffins and other baked goods, and a coffee machine that produces double-shot espressos on request. Warning: The cappuccino comes out pre-sweetened but that's a minor complaint. The same friendly young attendant we met last night was on duty (she works a split shift twice weekly) and we enjoyed chatting with her as well.

We're now relaxing before heading back home. We're definitely adding this property to the list of good places to stay in this neighborhood.

Victoria BC Dining: Paprika Bistro (Now Padella Bistro) Is A Winner

Last night three of us dined at Paprika Bistro, in a charming part of Victoria's Oak Bay.

Trip Advisor reviewers had said nice things about it, and a passing comment in Chowhound caught our eye, even if the commenter wrote "It is simple fair" for "fare."

Overall we were quite pleased with our choice. The restaurant itself presents a charming and attractive appearance. The seating area is broken up into several quasi-separated rooms, with the ambience of an old house. The table we'd reserved was in an area with only one couple at a table distant enough that we were barely aware of them.

The service was friendly and attentive. We took advantage of the optional three-course add-on for an additional $14. That included a choice of soup or salad (arugula or an interesting bright red beet soup) and a generously sized crème brûlée for dessert that was as good as any we've ever had.

For the main, Kathy and Brian chose from the menu the homemade pasta, bucatini , with braised beef, that was heartily reminiscent of a goulash.

Our guest, Louise, said her grilled pork loin was some of the best pork she'd ever eaten in B.C.

The house-made bread (they use a starter, although it's not sourdough) was so good that our server brought us a second basket.

With a modest quantity of house wine and the various taxes, the final bill for three of us was well north of $150, but for that we enjoyed a creative three-course meal and attentive service in a charming restaurant. In Victoria, that's good value.

 February 2013 update: We just checked out Trip Advisor and the restaurant's name has been changed to Padella Bistro as of Fall 2012. Unfortunately the most recent reviews there aren't kind so we'd check around before returning.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Victoria State Of Mind

With about 50 miles on the odometer since filling the tank in Blaine, and a wallet lighter by about 80 bucks for ferry fare, we've arrived at the Four Points by Sheraton, off the Trans-Canada Highway about 10 minutes north of downtown Victoria.

They upgraded us to a suite, the first time we've ever seen a large jacuzzi tub in a living room.

Brian didn't even bother asking Kathy to pose in it. She's a notorious bad sport in such matters so it sits below in its majestic emptiness.

Victoria Bound

Kathy's still wrestling with one of those bugs going around. If you have a bad cough that goes on and on you know what we're talking about.

Doctors used to prescribe ocean voyages, and we're embarking today. To be more modest (and accurate), we're riding BC Ferries from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay for a quick overnight family visit in Victoria.

Yo ho ho!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Amtrak Points Bargain: An Update

Since we mentioned the Amtrak bargain to some nice folks attending the Birch Bay Village Wine Club's annual Christmas shindig Saturday night, we'll provide a link to our earlier comments here, and a link to our recent Amtrak ride from Bellingham to Seattle here.

The points train is leaving the station December 31 2011. All Aboard!

The "Best" Hotel Loyalty Program? We're Tiltin' Toward Hilton

Between now and the end of the year we plan to complete the final stays that will requalify us for top-tier status in both the Hilton and Starwood hotel rewards programs.

In other words we'll be HHonors™ Diamonds and Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) Platinums throughout 2012. In an embarrassment of riches, as a result of a promotion we're also Intercontinental Priority Club Platinums.

People generally ask us two questions.

1. Why a hotel loyalty program rather than taking the Hotwire / Priceline route?

That all depends on your travel patterns. If you stay in hotels only a few nights annually, you're probably better off looking for the cheapest rate possible and forgetting about sticking to one chain. For us, those points we accumulate come in handy when we want to stay in an expensive hotel city such as Tokyo or Rome. Just before Hilton's 2010 point devaluation (adding points required for free stays), we booked six-night stays at the Conrad Hong Kong and the Hilton Moorea Resort. Wow!

And, as with frequent flyer upgrades to First Class, the perks (bonus points, lounge access, free wireless, Hilton's free breakfasts, SPG's suite upgrades ) are very pleasant, especially when we realize what it would cost us to actually buy up to them, especially in foreign properties.

2. Which of these hotel programs is the best?

All we can tell you is which program we think best fits with our own travel patterns. As FlyerTalkers write, YMMV - "your mileage may vary." Very simply, our own favored chain is Hilton. Why?

The most important reason is that there are a lot of Hilton properties around the world (more than 3000) at varying price levels: DoubleTree,Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn & Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, Hilton Grand Vacations, Homewood Suites, and The Waldorf Astoria.

At SEA alone, Hilton properties with free airport shuttles include no fewer than two Hampton Inns, two Doubletrees, a Hilton, a Hilton Garden Inn, an Embassy Suites, and a Homewood Suites. They offer unmatched "stay" opportunities for us.

Do we like Starwood? Yes we do, enough that we made the effort to qualify again after getting a status match that resulted in a suite at Iguazu Falls with quite a view. We now understand why many "experts" prefer Starwood.

How about Intercontinental? That program offers some terrific opportunities to book properties with a combination of money and points. We've used these to great advantage in Australia, once Aussie friends Bill and Sue explained how to do it. We even found ourselves in the "second best suite" at Darwin's Holiday Inn Esplanade (Bill and Sue deservedly had the biggest and best suite). What's more, the refurbished Holiday Inn Express properties we've visited stack up very nicely against Hampton Inns.

Other travelers we know favor Hyatt or Marriott. Every program has its pluses and minuses. Please remember that we're not hotel experts, but we did stay in a Holiday Inn Express (although not last night).

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Opera Of The Slovak National Theatre: Buying Tickets For This Bratislava Bargain

In November we mentioned here that we're planning to return to Bratislava in March 2012, the main objective being performances of three (actually four) of our favorite operas.

Yesterday, in a fit of remorse over his previous procrastination, Brian tried to buy tickets on the official site. He was eventually successful in printing out tickets for Die Zauberflöte but couldn't even find the other operas.

He did, however, come across an e-mail contact for "Foreign Visitors Reservations" and sent off an appeal for assistance.

Lo and behold, he found a friendly reply upon opening his inbox this morning. We now have tickets reserved for La bohème and that deadly double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. The cost for center seats in the orchestra section in Rows 3, 4, and 5? Between 25 and 30 Euros each!

In celebration we're listening to the marvelous Diana Damrau singing the Queen of The Night here.

Update: Brian sent a thank-you e-mail to the individual for her assistance:

Dear xxx,

Thank you so very much for your prompt reply. Those are exactly the tickets we would have chosen, and we can pick them up when we are attending the Magic Flute.

My wife and I greatly appreciate your timely assistance and are looking forward to our three evenings of opera in your beautiful city.

Yours sincerely,
Brian Warner

The e-mail reply from Bratislava?

Thank you dear Brian.



Tuesday, December 13, 2011

When Your Vacation Rental Is A Dud

We've stayed in timeshare properties and private residences in Europe and Mexico without experiencing any serious problems. In fact, they've generally exceeded our expectations.

Still, things can go wrong, as one couple discovered when renting a once-in-a-lifetime Paris property without hot water. Even though the travelers rented it through a legitimate agency, even though they paid extra for a "rent with confidence" guarantee, even though they were supported by a well known travel "ombudsman", they were still out of luck.

In the final analysis, you pays your money and you takes your chances.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Birthday Train

What better cake for Grandma Kathy to assemble for our youngest grandchild's second birthday than a train for Blane? That's what he wanted, although he also liked the idea of a robot. He referred to the caboose as a robot so we had the best of both worlds.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

When Flying In A Plane Is Plainly Unexciting

Kathy and Brian rode in a hot-air balloon one sunrise about a dozen years ago. We were in Telluride Colorado on a Fourth of July weekend during a balloon rally and floated up in the air in a balloon sponsored by a restaurant one of her brothers owned.

We touched down at one point in a field inhabited by a bull at the far end. Fortunately he kept his distance. Later we drifted near the runway of the local airport and had to assume the plane sitting on the runway a few hundred feet down could see us too.

That was plenty of excitement for us, but for others, especially those with deep pockets, there are other alternatives to a plain plane ride.

Friday, December 9, 2011

World's Strangest Vending Machine Products

No, we've never run across vending machines that dispense live crabs, original art, or jeans in our travels, but they're out there if you know where to look.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Cuddle Class On Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand came up with what's probably the most interesting positive innovation in coach seating in years.

After a lot of research and testing in a secret warehouse, they've rolled out a customized row of three economy seats for two passengers. A flip-up leg rest allows a couple to cuddle together and lie flat on their "sky couch" on long-haul flights.

The typical surcharge is $500 to $800 per flight. Would we pay that for the opportunity to lie flat on, say, a 14-hour flight to New Zealand? Absolutely.

Scott McCartney's Wall Street Journal Middle Seat column describing it, complete with photos, may be found here.

You can also read about the other alternatives they considered. Cool!

On the other hand, this review in the Australian Business Traveller points out that these seats are situated in a 777 with a seat configuration of 3-4-3, featuring narrow seats and narrow aisles. It's probably better than nothing but it's going to be crowded.

Flying In The Dead Zones

Too gruesome? It's actually the theme of a useful travel column in USA Today that lays out in detail the idea of saving money on air travel by flying "off season."

You can read it here.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Sehome Sunset

On magnificent Lake Thunderbird as we edge closer to the shortest day of the year...

On Free Bus Rides and Celebrity Melt-Downs (Flight Attendants Too)

The invaluable Travel Insider points us toward free megabus rides, although unfortunately only in the East for now.

In the meantime, the actor Alec Baldwin gets kicked off a plane because he won't stop playing Words With Friends. AA claims this happened after he allegedly kicked the lavatory door and made rude and abusive remarks. How addictive that game can be - just ask Kathy!

What with the free Internet on that megabus, it does look like a good travel option for Mr. Baldwin, doesn't it?

While on the topic of naughty plane behavior in the news, maybe the AirTran (Southwest-owned) flight attendant who consecutively kicked three different women off the same flight, in the way an ineffective teacher keeps sending students to the principal's office, should also consider taking the bus instead.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

FlyerTalk And Milepoint: Favorites For Flyers

We are members of Flyertalk and know our way around this vast website fairly well at this point. We have picked up a lot of information from it over the years; in fact, it got us interested in the world of frequent flyers.

After its founder, Randy Petersen, sold FT to Internet Brands, he and some partners started a somewhat similar new site, Milepoint, and it's probably a little easier for "newbies" to navigate.

A column in USA Today makes the same point and provides a useful comparison of the two sites.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sunday, December 4, 2011

100 Fantastic Views From The Window Seat

One advantage of a window seat over an aisle seat is revealed in these photos.

Some 2011 Travel Statistics - But Who's Counting?

Now that we're sitting in the midst of December 2011, with no more trips planned between now and the end of the month, it seems safe to update this year's travel statistics.

We've flown about 130,000 miles this year, 120,000 of them on United Airlines. We reached Million Mile status with UA before the year was half over, but UA has pulled the rug out from under its Million Mile Flyers by reducing the benefits, and a lot of loyal customers aren't happy.

UA is introducing a new Platinum tier and making honorary elites of anybody who so much as signs up for the right credit card, so there'll be more people to compete with for exit rows and it turns out that just about everybody is elite when it comes to boarding. Furthermore, UA has announced that it will no longer award us with a regional upgrade at the end of every year, as it's still promising as of today here on its website.

On the new UA, the phrase "lifetime benefits" has become meaningless. The merger with Continental seems in reality to represent with few exceptions a Continental takeover in terms of the experience for customers. It appears we're moving toward a more revenue-based model of perks for flyers and we'll just have to see what develops, especially with American Airlines in bankruptcy and probably eager to lure some new customers away from the other remaining legacy carriers.

We spent 29 nights aboard two of the ships of Oceania Cruises, sailing from Buenos Aires to Barcelona on Insignia in March, and our more recent November Caribbean cruise on Regatta.

We added more countries to our list, working from the Century Travelers' Club list of 321 entities, giving us a total of 84 countries to date.

Pacific Ocean
French Polynesia (Tahiti,Tuamotu, Austral, Gambier)
Hawaiian Islands
New Zealand
North America
U.S. (continental)
Central America
Belize (British Honduras)
Costa Rica
South America
Antigua & Deps. (Barbuda, Redonda)
Cayman Islands
Dominican Republic
Leeward Islands, French (St. Martin)
Puerto Rico
St. Barts
St. Kitts
St. Lucia
St. Maarten (formerly Netherlands Antilles)
Turks and Caicos Islands
Virgin Islands, U.S. (St. Croix, St. John, St. Thomas)
Virgin Islands, British (Tortola, etc.)
Atlantic Ocean
Azores Islands
Canary Islands
Cape Verde Islands
Europe and Mediterranean
Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Minorca)
Czech Republic
Ireland (Eire)
Ireland, Northern (Ulster)
Turkey in Europe (Istanbul)
Vatican City
Senegal (plane refueling)
South Africa
Middle East
Indian Ocean
China, People's Rep.
Hong Kong
Korea, North (DMZ)
Korea, South
Turkey in Asia

All in all, it's been a good year for travel, along with renovating a kitchen and spending quality time with grandchildren. Here's to more in 2012!

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Gingerbread Grandmother

After helping Jake and Taegan and Riley and Blane to make gingerbread houses just before our cruise, Kathy was feeling bad that three of our seven grandchildren hadn't been involved.

Fortunately, Avery, Lily, and Peyton are on their way to a ski weekend in B.C. and stayed overnight with us the day after we slept at their house on our way back from our cruise. Thoughts of gingerbread immediately flew through Kathy's head. It was time for the girls to go to work. They did and we're all pleased with the results.

And well they should be!

Sunny Northwest Weather: A Good Day To Look at Cruise Photos

To ease any pain of returning from a Caribbean cruise, we're back at home in the midst of a streak of sunny days. Of course, the lack of cloud cover results in temperatures below freezing at night and daytime highs in the mid-40s, but it's still beautiful, leaving us to look over the photos we took aboard Regatta.

Tendering ashore to look around Gustavia, St. Barts.

Tarpon milling near the fish-cleaning station awaiting a handout...

Then it's back aboard.

Our next stop was a docking at Tortola, British Virgin Islands.

Watching the pilot hop on and off the ship always provides entertainment, especially when it takes place eight decks below our suite, but the seas were too smooth to make this one very dramatic.

Skywatching can reveal some amazing views.

Rank has its privileges. Dining in our suite on dishes from Toscana'a menu, from the Lasagne al Forno alla Bolognese to the Mozzarella di Bufala Caprese to the Aragosta Fra Diavolo con Tagliolini Freschi (Kathy) and the Costolette d’Agnello avvolte in Pancetta Toscana, servite su Patate all’Aglio e Rosmarino (Brian), was a treat that thoroughly spoiled us.

Our first-ever visit to La Romana, Dominican Republic, was not inspiring. As mentioned earlier, the aggressively pushy vendors in the markets set up in a town park obviously for the cruise ship passengers was annoying. Still, we enjoyed a brief walking our around the fairly run-down town with a friendly guide and a peek at Sunday baseball games, baseball being very important in the Dominican Republic.

Our final stop was at the tiny Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos Islands, sort of at the other extreme from La Romana, in that a beautifully sterile little shopping center was set up for the cruise ships, including even an outpost of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville.It's main claim to fame is the fact that John Glenn splashed down nearby and was brought ashore to the US military base after making the first orbital flight.

As in most other ports, we had company.

Not a bad little cruise...